Study to examine competition for mates in third-gender cultures

Women in North America typically don’t worry about gay men flirting with their boyfriends but in cultures that recognize same-sex-attracted males as a third gender, all bets seem to be off.

Dr. Paul Vasey, a psychology professor at the University of Lethbridge, wants to investigate what happens to women’s sexual psychology when they find themselves competing for mates with third-gender males. His proposed research study recently received more than $140,000 over four years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

“The research that I’m proposing to do in this latest SSHRC grant takes a different approach,” says Vasey. “It doesn’t ask why same-sex sexuality exists. We’re going to take it as a given that individuals who are same-sex attracted exist in the environment and we want to examine the influence they have on the behaviour and cognition of heterosexual individuals.”

Most research in human mating psychology has separated reproductive interactions from non-reproductive encounters but Vasey maintains that sex for procreation and sex for recreation evolve in concert and can influence each other. He conducts research in cultures that recognize a third gender, specifically the muxes in the Istmo region of Oaxaca, Mexico, and the fa’afafine in Samoa. The fa’afafine and muxes are same-sex attracted feminine males or what could be called transgender in North America. Fa’afafine and muxes will engage in sexual activity with masculine men who are bisexual, and bisexual males are quite commonplace in these cultures.

“I’m asking questions about how those third-gender males influence women’s behaviour and cognition,” says Vasey. “When you have these same-sex-attracted, feminine males in the environment and masculine men are willing to have sex with them, this creates a unique mating problem for heterosexual women. In such an environment, heterosexual women not only have to compete with other women like they do here in Canada, but they have to compete with these third-gender males as well.”

Vasey, and graduate students Lanna Petterson, Scott Semenyna and Francisco Gomez, have conducted some preliminary interviews in these cultures, asking heterosexual women if a fa’afafine or muxe had approached their boyfriends or husbands. One woman reported trying to compete by offering her boyfriend the same sexual services as the fa’afafine, while another reported rejecting her boyfriend after he chose to be with a muxe over her.

“No one has talked about these kinds of competitive mating interactions in the human literature,” says Vasey. “Ultimately, this research has implications for Darwinian sexual selection theory because sexual selection involves mate acquisition, which results in differential reproduction between individuals.”

Previous research has shown women in North America say they would be more upset if their husbands or boyfriends had a one-night stand with another man, rather than with a woman. Women in Samoa, when asked the same question, say they would be more upset if their husbands or boyfriends had a one-night stand with a woman than with a fa’afafine.

From an evolutionary perspective, Vasey says that a woman in North America interprets the situation and concludes her husband is gay. This is something she can’t compete with so she foresees losing her husband. Faced with the same situation, a woman in Samoa likely concludes her husband is bisexual and will eventually return to her because he wants children. A husband who had a one-night stand with another woman would be more upsetting because the chances of her being abandoned would be greater.

Vasey and his students will conduct interviews, questionnaires and experiments in the lab here in Canada and at their field sites in Samoa and Mexico to obtain their data.

“This research is cutting edge. We are the only lab in the world that has a sustained program of research on third-gender males,” says Vasey. “Studying non-traditional mating systems such as those that include Samoan fa’afafine and Istmo Zapotec muxes can result in transformative new ways of theorizing about the dynamic interplay between reproductive and non-reproductive sex. This can help reconfigure our thinking and help to correct biased, incomplete or erroneous views about human sexual psychology.”